Hardin Construction Co. has filed a lawsuit against Centex Construction Co., now known as Balfour Beatty Construction, claiming that several high-level Hardin employees in the company’s Atlanta office defected to Centex illegally in May, 2005 and allegedly copied thousands of confidential Hardin company files containing cost information to bring with them.

Atlanta-based Hardin claims these files were taken specifically to benefit Centex Construction and included internal company estimating and cost history databases as well as the Sage Timberline Office estimates for a number of their larger projects. Hardin had initially filed suit against three former employees in June 2005, but re-filed the claim last month adding Centex as a defendant.

The lawsuit charges Centex and the employees with breach of contract, fraud, computer theft and violating Hardin’s ethics policy. The policy compels employees to keep proprietary information confidential.

In its claim, Hardin alleges that these actions were taken “in an effort to boost Centex’s market share at the expense of Hardin.”

Balfour Beatty earlier this year acquired Dallas-based Centex Construction Co. from Centex Corp. and now operates the unit under Balfour Beatty’s name.

An attorney for Centex Construction says that the departures were legal, the files in question have been returned and that no damage was done to Hardin.

According to a complaint filed in state court in Atlanta in late March, Hardin alleges that in May 2005, senior vice president Robert J. “Jeff” George, a 16-year Hardin employee, left the company for a position with Centex Construction. About a week later, according to the complaint, George was followed by David Turner, then Hardin’s executive in charge of preconstruction services, as well as Wanda Dunaway, then chief business developer for the retail division. Several lower-level Hardin employees also defected to Centex.

Suspicions aroused, Hardin officials studied the three employees’ computer workstations, the complaint says. Detailed analysis revealed that in the days prior to leaving the company, Turner had copied more than 23,000 files from his company workstation, claims Hardin. These included Timberline estimates for at least 21 Hardin projects, internal company form templates, bidding lists with the contact information of Hardin’s subcontractors, conceptual budgets, unit cost breakdowns and general conditions estimates, Hardin claims.

An analysis of George and Dunaway’s workstations also allegedly showed they had accessed an unusual number of sensitive company files prior to their resignations. Among the files Hardin claims George accessed on the day of his departure were quantities and unit pricing from The Mall of Georgia Project in Buford and submittal logs used in the Grand Ocean Resort Project in Hilton Head.

Hardin filed suit against the three employees a few weeks later in June 2005.

A court ordered Centex to give back the files soon after the original claim had been filed and Centex complied. Hardin’s case against the three employees was set to go to trial this past March. Prior to the trial date, Hardin withdrew the suit and filed a new one, this time naming Centex Construction as one of the defendants. Hardin is seeking about $1 million in damages from the three former employees as well as at least $10 million in punitive damages from Centex.

In its claim, Hardin says that not only did the employees take the files to benefit their new employer Centex, but pressured former subordinates and co-workers at Hardin to follow them to Centex, and that Centex is persisting in their attempts to recruit Hardin employees. Hardin asserts that these practices have harmed their business and that Hardin lost contracts to build two in part because key employees left to work for Centex.

The former employees and Centex claim that since the files were returned promptly they could not have been used to damage Hardin’s business. The employees maintain that there was nothing wrong with their exodus, and that it did not cause direct harm to Hardin’s business. George is countersuing Hardin for $114,483 plus interest in deferred compensation, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“Hardin has re-filed this lawsuit, but has no new evidence or facts to bring forward,” says Milo Cogan, an attorney representing Centex and the former Hardin employees. “All the alleged documents were returned under the temporary restraining order, none have been in their [the employees] possession since June, 2005. At this point we find the addition of Centex to the lawsuit to be frivolous.”